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Children whose problem behaviour improves perform better academically

The educational attainment of children is more likely to suffer if their conduct worsens during primary school, according to new research carried out by a team at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families and UCL. 

The research also found that pupils showing an improvement in their problem behaviour from the ages of 8 to 11 perform better academically than their still misbehaving peers.

Lead author, Praveetha Patalay, currently at UCL Institute of Education, carried out the research with colleagues while at the Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology (UCL) and the Evidence Based Practice Unit (UCL and the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families). The paper has been published in European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

“It is probably unsurprising that children whose behaviour deteriorated perform worse than their peers. It is also pleasing to observe that children whose conduct improved were more likely to do better in their Key Stage 2 exams.

“This suggests that making efforts to improve and prevent disruptive behaviour may have a positive impact on academic performance,” Patalay says.

The team discovered that almost 10 per cent more (67%) of those children whose conduct improved reached the government’s expected minimum score of 25 points for their Key Stage 2 tests, compared to those pupils whose problem behaviour continued (59%).

The children whose behaviour deteriorated the most over the three years scored lowest academically at age 11, with just over half of these children achieving the expected minimum score. Almost four out of five pupils who were consistently well-behaved from the ages of 8 to 11 reached the 25 point mark.

The authors also found that children who went from being well-behaved to having significant conduct problems scored almost a whole point less in their Key Stage 2 assessments when compared to children who were well-behaved from the ages of 8 to 11.

The researchers analysed data gathered on almost 5,500 children in 138 English state-funded primary schools collecting Key Stage 1 and 2 test results at ages 7 and 11. Their behavioural conduct was measured at ages 8, 9 and 10 using a self-completed questionnaire.

The study, which was funded and supported by the Department for Education and Department of Health, shows that almost half of all children reported consistently good behaviour, compared to one in three who had a slight increase in conduct issues. A marked improvement in good conduct was observed in 5 per cent of children, while 3 per cent showed a significant increase in problem behaviours, and 2 per cent maintained high levels of conduct difficulties over the three years.

“This study has highlighted groups at particular risk of poor academic achievement, who may then be targeted for additional support to help achieve academic parity with their peers”, says Jessica Deighton, Deputy Director of the Evidence Based Practice Unit and one of the authors of the study.

Further information

Read the full paper, Unpacking the associations between heterogeneous externalising symptom development and academic attainment in middle childhood, by Praveetha Patalay, Elian Fink, Peter Fonagy and Jessica Deighton.

Find out more about the Evidence Based Practice Unit.